The fate that befell Rangers yesterday was eminently predictable. A Brendan Rodgers-helmed Celtic, backed by the sort of hefty investment currently out of reach of the Ibrox side, was always likely to emerge from the first such derby of the season underlining a plain truth.
These two teams may now be in the same league, but that is in name only – irrespective of vanquished manager Mark Warburton’s claims that there is no great gulf between the pair.
Whatever you think of this post-liquidation incarnation of Rangers – and, as with religions, you should be allowed to believe what you want – yesterday’s mauling felt like all those one-sided face-offs between teams of the past. Off the field, there was a carnival of cursing between the opposing supports, giving way cavorting by the Celtic faithful as the cuffing took shape.
On it, in key spells the home side’s ferocity and fluency, wedded to their finishing, allowed them to completely overwhelm a less accomplished opponent. And in this Glasgow grudge match, a horrible day is so often compounded by a reduction in player numbers and, sometimes, coaching numbers.
A stupid slap of the ball to prevent it reaching Moussa Dembele, who proved a historic hat-trick destroyer, from Philippe Senderos brought a second yellow for the Swiss with 15 minutes remaining and the score at 3-1. Three minutes later referee Willie Collum was forced to do more pointing tunnel-wards after Rangers assistant David Weir was too aggressive in protests to fourth official Kevin Clancy. These aspects may have added to the theatre, and given way to Celtic adding two more goals in the closing minutes, but they did not change the complexion of the encounter in any significant fashion.
Rodgers can do no wrong just now at Celtic. His derby debut had shades of Martin O’Neill’s 6-2 slaughter of Rangers – an Ibrox team that were then out-of-sight champions of the top flight, rather than the second-tier title holders. And the former Liverpool manager’s pre-match predictions, that his team would not be bereft in front of goal even if Leigh Griffiths was declared unfit, proved so accurate it seemed he had been reading his tea leaves before sending out Dembele to do his thing.
It was fitting that the first league hat-trick in this fixture for 50 years was of the classic variety. The 20-year-old Frenchman has had his contribution questioned even as the Rodgers reign has brought Champions League football and five straight domestic wins. It was simply sublime as Rangers were ripped apart, the striker scoring three and setting up a fourth. His triple was of the gold standard in his netting first with a header, then with his right-foot before completing his tally with a left-foot conversion.
After defending pretty stoutly across a mundane opening half-hour, the Achilles’ heel of Rangers was exposed by Dembele when he rose high above Rob Kiernan and Senderos to power in an outswinging Scott Sinclair corner from the left. It was 2-0 in 42 minutes after Kiernan passed the ball straight to Tom Rogic and he then sent Dembele away down the right channel. The Celtic forward had still plenty to do, carving his way round a spinning Senderos before lashing the ball high past Wes Foderingham with the outside of his foot.
The defensive deficiencies weren’t all one-sided yesterday and Rangers emerged for the second half still in the contest thanks to uncertainty from keeper Dorus de Vries after a James Tavernier cross from deep was tickled into the middle of the Dutchman’s goal by the head of Kenny Miller. His failure to make any contact allowed Joe Garner to make it 2-1 with seconds of the first period remaining.
Any notion that Rangers could stay in contention was ended when Dembele weaved his way forward and showed precision and vision to release Sinclair, who beat Foderingam with the aid of a post.
Then, Dembele’s craft for his second goal was placed in the shade by his strike to make it 4-1 with 83 minutes played. His take to bring down a Mikael Lustig crossfield ball was exquisite, his subsequent slotting of the ball home clinical.
Substitute Stuart Armstrong completed the scoring in added time when he found the bottom corner with a neat angled reverse effort.
Questions will be asked of Warburton’s approach to his first trip to Celtic Park. Fielding an off-the-pace Niko Kranjcar ahead of the more combative Andy Halliday, who replaced the booked and cruising-for-dismissal Croatian at half-time, will supply the Englishman with plenty of grief in the coming days. The fact is, though, that Rangers do not have the means to challenge Celtic’s title hegemony regardless of what personnel they play. Their problems, and the superiority of Rodgers’ team, runs much deeper than that.